After years of skirmishing with Microsoft, the time has come for Oracle to make a strategic strike aimed at breaking Microsoft's dominance of the computer industry. With that goal in mind, Oracle has launched an Oracle8i upgrade that for the first time bundles a file system with the database. This precursor to a wave of new Internet computing applications will ultimately lead to a significantly reduced role for operating systems, while simultaneously making the database the core enabling technology in the enterprise. Oracle Chairman and CEO Larry Ellison outlined his new line of attack with IDG's Michael Vizard and Katherine BullIDG: When you get to the very core, what differentiates Oracle's approach to enterprise computing from Microsoft's?
Ellison: Economics, reliability, and security. For example, a guy at Burger King said they'll use Microsoft's SQL Server at all their hamburger stands because SQL Server is much cheaper. That's not really true; we're the same price, but that's not really important. What's really important is that you shouldn't have databases in hambur-ger stands. You should not have lots of complex server software spread all across your company. It's a really bad idea.
Having complicated desktop software spread across your company is bad enough. But server software requires a lot of talented, expensive labour to manage. If you think client/server is labour-intensive, wait until you distribute servers all over the place. The small PC servers don't cost as much as Unix servers, but the labour cost to run them is exactly the same.
Are there any other more strategic issues at hand?
Well, what's worse is that you pay a terrible price in terms of having bad access to information if you irrationally distribute your servers. If Burger King, instead of putting servers in all their hamburger stands, had just a Web connection to a centralised server running Oracle, they'd be able to ask questions like how many hamburgers did they sell in the last hour around the world.
If you try to do that with distributed servers, you won't be able to get an answer because you'll have to query hundreds, or even thousands, of database servers. You'll have a fragmentation of information that is just deadly. You want to distribute data, information, and access, but don't want to irrationally distribute the databases and the complexity associated with that when they can be centrally, professionally managed - while still giving everyone access over your intranet or the Web.
The economics of this approach are wonderful. The servers are secure and you get much better information to work with. Microsoft's vision of servers everywhere just creates islands of information. Our approach is 10-to-1 cheaper and the real benefit is better information. So the Web everywhere overwhelms NT everywhere.
As part of the effort, you've included a file system with Oracle8i that in theory reduces the dependence applications have on the operating system. But databases in the past have never been known as high-performance file servers. What's changed?
Processors got faster. The big issue that made databases slow was the path link to the code. The issue of performance is no longer the CPU speed, it's the I/O speed. Databases have always been more economical in terms of I/O than file systems. We paid for that in terms of processor rate by burning down more of the processor speed. But the pendulum has now swung where databases are faster than file systems.
So in your mind there should be no difference between the database and the file server?
We think there should be no difference. It's getting harder and harder to find things on your PC, so we agree with Bill Gates that everything should be stored in a database. With Oracle8i we have an internet File System that will allow you to drag any folder on your desktop to another folder because that folder is now located on your O: drive, which is the Oracle database where it can be shared, searched, and professionally backed up.
We think the richest file system - the most searchable, the most secure, the highest-performance file system, and the easiest way to share data - is Oracle8i, where the database manages the file system.
Not too long ago you were a leading proponent of client/server computing. Now you are pushing Internet computing. What happened?
Client/server computing by its very nature requires a server to be co-located on a local area network with a client. The one good thing about mainframes is that terminals all over the world can access that data across a wide area network. The thing that killed client/server is that it didn't use the wide area network efficiently. It was really designed for local area networks.
The great thing about the Web is that it gives us our wide area network efficiencies back. So now we have the best of both worlds, with a great user interface, rich development environment, cheap hardware, and access anywhere in the world.
Is that just an issue now because we have limited network bandwidth or will this always be the case?
You'll never want to go back to totally distributed computing. Even if everything was free, you'd still want to have your operational computers on as few servers as possible because you get much better information.
Is the Internet really reliable enough to do this on a large mission-critical scale?
The weak link in all this is not the network link. The weak link is all the software on the servers and getting qualified people to run them.
How will this new strategy play out in your suite of ERP [enterprise resource planning] applications?
We built our ERP applications so we can run the whole world out of a single location. We call that single instance, self-service applications. This gives senior managers amazing information, and it's easy to deploy.
The interesting thing about modern applications is that everyone is a user. If you look at PeopleSoft or SAP, they still have lots of heavyweight stuff on the PC. The only client software we have is a browser. Managing all the desktop software is not an issue. And we want to bring everybody online, not just some people.
Everybody in the company is a user, so sud-denly you have user counts that go from 5 per cent of the company to 85 per cent of the company. You can't do that using client/server software because the labour cost is overwhelming. A lot of these databases out there managed by professionals are full of junk.
PeopleSoft has done a good job of building process automation systems for clerical professionals. The users of PeopleSoft systems are not senior executives or sales executives; they are not managers of any kind.
One of the key problems with taking on this scale of applications is that nobody wants to enter the data. How will you get folks such as salespeople to key in data?
I'm not a fan of anything that puts complexity in the hands of the user. The end users will fill in the data if it's simple; the problem is that it has not been simple. That's why we have a Yahoo-type version of Front Office. So when you fill out your forecast, we'll be able to tell you what your sales compensation is right afterward. So there's a quid pro quo of the Web where I'll give you new prospects, contacts, marketing encyclopaedias, and the only software you need to learn is Internet Explorer or Navigator. I can also give the latest news on your client and the history of the account. And for senior executives, you can look at any console in the world and see how you're doing for the quarter.
So how then should people approach data-warehousing strategies given the move to Internet computing?
The primary reason people build data warehouses is to take all the data in distributed databases and put it in a central location where they can access it. The interesting thing about us is that we have Oracle Parallel Server that not only gives you fault tolerance, but one machine could be doing queries while the other is doing updates. So we can have data warehouses and operational databases coexisting on the same machine. If you do that, you literally can have an up-to-the-second data warehouse.
So how should people perceive Oracle now?
Oracle8i is not just a database anymore. It's the world's most powerful Java development environment where all of your data and application tools are a container that is a very powerful, easy-to-use environment. You don't even need to pay attention to the operating system, which you shouldn't have had to think about in the first place. Oracle8i insulates you from everything else.